In a voice that's shed its Midwestern neutrality and now flings words with sharp, Slavic corners, Oleg corrects the names of his associates. Katie is actually Katya. (Yes, they are brother and sister.) The flattop-eared thug, whose name I never caught in the first place, is Fedor. As he is being introduced—or reintroduced, whatever—Fedor flares his nostrils.
I feel queasy. It's not so much their new names, which are unsurprising given what I've discovered, as their attitude. These three don't look abashed at being found out. If anything, chests swell in their yellow polo shirts.
"Right here, right now," Susan says, her voice quavering, "someone tell me what in holy hell we're building."
Oleg, like a mistress with no remorse, folds his arms and looks to Carter.
"Blackquest 40 is a deliverable for the Russian government," snivels the CFO. "Due to the identity of the client and the time-sensitive nature of the project, it was necessary to, uh ... well, Oleg and I put our heads together and came up with this 'extreme training' idea."
"Put your heads together?" I can't take lingo in this moment. I just can't. "You turned this place into a prison, Carter. The engineers—we do the work, you know? We basically are the product you jet-set all around the world selling. And you cut these beasts loose on us."
Oleg says, "The motivational techniques are tough but proven."
"Proven on who, enemy combatants? Mercenaries? What's your real background? Like you said, time for artifice has passed. Tell us about the crate of weapons in the van downstairs."
The Russian's upper lip shudders in place. "This crate of weapons—you found it when you killed Mikhail, yes?"
The bosses' heads snap my way. Paul looks like a chunk of McGriddle is stuck in his windpipe.
"I didn't kill him," I say. "He attacked me. That was self-defense."
"Our logs show the van's security measures were defeated using spoofed disarm codes."
"So you broke in. When Mikhail discovered you, you killed him."
"No—when Mikhail discovered me and tried his damnedest to strangle me, then I killed him. Like I said, self-defense."
Oleg shrugs, seeming to grant me credit. "How did you get him to the dumpster? Mikhail weighs nearly a hundred kilos. This is not possible for a female of your size."
Susan jumps in with a different objection than I expect. "There's a dead body in the dumpster on Second Ave? A municipal dumpster which anybody could stumble across?"
"The body has been recovered," Oleg says. "Nothing on police frequencies indicates it was reported or otherwise detected."
I can't be sure—my senses are oversampling wildly in this standoff—but does a flicker of relief enter Susan's face? How can she be worried about outsiders discovering Blackquest 40? Don't we want the cops in our business?
Aren't we stopping this?
Paul huffs from the side. "I still haven't heard a satisfactory answer on just what exactly my team is building. Is it part of a weapons system? Some hacking operation?"
Susan piles on. Why the time pressure? We've worked for governments before, how's this different? Both laying into Carter. I have a vision of the three back at Carnegie Mellon, spitballing in the grad student lounge about what their theoretical company might do. Academic consults? Pure software? B2B or consumer? One of these giddy discussions where all answers are right, all paths golden. You're just picking what flavor champagne.
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Blackquest 40Mystery / Thriller
** WATTYS 2018 WINNER ** Deb Bollinger has no time for corporate training. Her company's top engineer at just twenty-seven, Deb has blocked off her day for the one project she truly cares about: the launch of Carebnb, an app that finds spare beds fo...